KABUL, Afghanistan — The ballots are printed, campaign posters fill nearly every bakery window, and candidates are busy insulting one another on national radio shows. For the first time since the 1960s, Afghans are preparing for a nationwide election.
But amid the public debates and political rallies, the 18 presidential candidates are busy making backroom deals and shrewd alliances that may really determine who leads Afghanistan for the next five years.
"It's a very fluid political environment at the moment, and there is lots of speculation about deal-making," said Andrew Wilder, director of the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, a think tank in Kabul, the capital. "The ... dealing in backrooms will probably determine the outcome of the elections."
When Afghans go to the polls Oct. 9, they will choose from a wide range of candidates, including a poet returning from exile in France, a female doctor, a religious conservative, a warlord infamous for driving nails into his opponents' heads during the 1990s civil war and, of course, incumbent Hamid Karzai.
To win, a candidate must get 51% of the vote; otherwise, a runoff will be held between the top two vote-getters.
Six months ago, few people doubted that Karzai would win handily in the first round. But a second round looks increasingly possible because the vote appears to be splitting along ethnic lines.
Karzai is from the nation's largest ethnic group, the Pushtuns. His most serious challenger is Younis Qanooni, his former education minister and an ethnic Tajik. Qanooni has the support of the powerful defense minister, Mohammed Qassim Fahim, a fellow Tajik who has a large private militia.
Karzai also may lose some votes to a former Cabinet minister, Mohammed Mohaqiq, an ethnic Hazara leader.
The divisions may force the first-round winners to form coalitions with rivals to ensure a majority in the second round.
In an example of the kind of negotiations that may be taking place, a senior government official said Qanooni had offered to support Karzai if the president excluded the powerful Pushtun finance minister, Ashraf Ghani, and the reform-minded Pushtun rural affairs minister, Haneef Atmar, from the next government.
The Tajiks are unhappy that many of the most powerful ministries are held by Pushtuns. It is unclear how Karzai has reacted to the reported offer.
Analysts, though, say deal-making leaves the players at risk of being mired in the rivalries of the last two decades.
"This is one of the last opportunities to introduce new politics to Afghanistan and to get rid of the old politics, the old faces who have dominated in the last 20 years and have been responsible for many of the tragedies of the last 20 years," Wilder said. "The new politics can bring new candidates and bring good government capable of delivering good governance."
Since the Taliban regime was ousted in late 2001 and an interim government established with the help of the West, many Afghans have become discouraged by the slow pace of reconstruction, the plodding disarmament of factional militias and the Taliban insurgency.
Many Afghans, aid workers and Western officials are disappointed that military commanders responsible for human rights abuses and the narcotics trade have been brought into the government after the emergency loya jirga, or grand assembly, in 2002 that established a transitional government.
Karzai has defended the deals, saying they are part of his strategy to build consensus. But critics say the moves have made it difficult to disarm the 60,000-strong private armies, reform the economy and establish the rule of law.
"If Karzai can go into elections and win without making too many deals, he can be a strong president without having his hands tied the way he has in the last couple of years with the back-dealing," a Western analyst said. "Afghans desperately want a new future and are hopeful. Karzai could capture that."
Independent candidate Homayoun Shah Assefy, an intellectual who lived in France for more than 20 years, said most of the presidential hopefuls were looking for important government posts and using their candidacies as leverage with Karzai. He expressed concern about Karzai's popularity slipping.
"I see this country going toward a crisis," he said. "There is no law, no accountability, the rich are getting richer, the poor are poorer.... Security is degrading, extremists becoming more powerful.... And all these candidates that are in the race are local representatives -- they represent ethnic groups and they want government jobs."
He said that Karzai was perhaps the only candidate with broad national and international appeal, because of his genuine commitment to the country, but that his deal-making had made the president unpopular among ordinary Afghans.